Doctor Dolittle is totally barmy. Originally a series of 1920s children’s novels by Hugh Lofting about a lonely oddball Victorian GP who is taught to talk to animals by his parrot, it’s probably best known to modern audiences from the 1967 film musical version, which went vastly over budget, wasn’t well received and starred Rex Harrison, who couldn’t sing. This stage incarnation, essentially an adaptation of the film, has much to recommend it but there’s still plenty of WTF deep in its DNA.
It’s a bold undertaking, with all creatures great and small realised on stage via ingenious puppetry. Some of them are properly gob-smacking. There’s also a full smorgasbord of singing and dancing from the large ensemble, with Leslie Bricusse’s original songs from the film intact.
As the eponymous doctor, film and TV star Mark Williams is capable and well cast, portraying the character faithfully and easily passing muster on singing duties. The trouble is, Dolittle – if you’ll pardon the tortuous pun – is a strange beast. A cold fish. He’s by no means a people person, openly admitting that he understands animals far better. On a rare occasion when he tries to handle some tricky human interaction, he’s told “Not exactly a diplomat, are you?”. By his parrot. He’s pleasantly dotty and all but he’s not really a character who leads you into the story of the show, and none of the others do either. As tonight’s Tommy Stubbins, young Thomas Ryan is a spirited little star and Mollie Melia-Redgrave as Emma Fairfax brings a winning blend of pluck and vulnerability, plus one mighty singing voice. Both characters are much more user-friendly than Dolittle but their roles aren’t enough to engross you throughout. Meanwhile the doctor himself doesn’t seem to have been changed much by his adventures come the final curtain.
The plot features many big, loopy leaps and non sequiturs. In fact, it’s not so much a plot as a meandering framework upon which to drape set pieces. The baddie – spoiler! – is revealed and defeated in the space of a single scene late on. There are very few actual LOL jokes here, either, which seems a shame, although to be fair the song lyrics are full of classic Bricusse ‘just look what I’m getting away with here!’ rhymes.
It’s a show built on spectacle, and sure enough the animals are the real stars. Elsewhere though the visual can be bewildering. The set design consists of side gantries like something out of West Side Story, framing painted backdrops which seem to be straining to look faux home-made rather than appear too big budget and glossy.
Admittedly these are just quibbles, but there are a fair few of them. Doctor Dolittle is big, blousy festive fare and for the most part it delivers as the all-singing, all-dancing, eye-popping family show that it’s meant to be. There are moments which are thoroughly entertaining, delightful, even touching. They tend to sprint past quickly though and the notions of character and story get lost among all the razzle dazzle. Somehow short on warmth and charm, it’s impossible not to admire and enjoy but strangely hard to adore. Yes, it’s fun, but it could be much more fun.
Doctor Dolittle is at The Lowry in Salford Lowry, until 5 January 5, 2019; https://thelowry.com/whats-on/doctor-dolittle/